Colorado’s freight railroads move more goods around and through the state than any other mode of transportation. They keep commerce humming and road-destroying truck traffic to a minimum. But a bill sitting on the desk of Gov. Jared Polis threatens to increase the cost of transport via rail by mandating the presence of superfluous personnel. For a forward-looking administration — particularly one committed to advancing a progressive agenda while keeping Colorado’s business environment healthy — such a mandate should be easy to reject.
The Colorado legislature, in the name of safety, recently passed a law requiring two-person locomotive crews on all freight railroads operating in the state. The notion that multi-person crews mean safer railroads is intuitively appealing but, as a technical matter, simply unfounded. In fact, in 2016, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) found that adding an additional crew member does nothing to improve safety.
The justification for mandatory multi-person freight train crews is weaker today than it was last time FRA considered it. FRA-mandated “Positive Train Control” technology — a form of locomotive automation that operates independent of crew size — has been installed almost everywhere. Additionally, railroads have spent billions on better trackside infrastructure. Between these two developments, Colorado’s tracks are safer than they’ve ever been.
Setting these improvements aside and assuming the merit of the “crews of two are safer” argument, it’s difficult to understand why the law opted to exclude passenger and scenic railroads from its mandate. If two people are truly needed to safely operate a locomotive, applying the rule only to trains hauling goods is putting Coloradans needlessly at risk. But passenger railroads, subways and light rail systems have long been capable of operating with single-person crews — in fact, Regional Transportation District light rail and commuter trains work just this way.
At bottom, this crew-size mandate is not about safety — it’s about protecting a few jobs. Yet mandating the presence of extra crew members means that the cost of shipping goods through and within Colorado will increase. While the per-trip cost of extra crew members may not appear large on its face, it could tip some branch lines and spurs into the red and put services and tracks at risk of abandonment.
Ancillary impacts will also compound quickly. With no rail option, farmers, miners and loggers will face a choice: either turn to trucks or go out of business. The latter is obviously an unappealing option, but if they choose the former, the heavy vehicles will destroy local roads at a cost to local governments of 13 cents per mile. And the taxpayer-borne costs don’t end there. Heavy trucks also generate externalities in the form of particulate air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, congestion, noise and crashes. Monetized, those impacts cost another 11 to 12 cents per mile traveled by each heavy truck.
There are solutions available. One way to make the crew-size bill less of a problem would be to include provisions that would nullify any change to crew-size regulations should federal railroad regulators speak on the issue. This provision is already part of a similar bill in Illinois and would prevent a future where Colorado suddenly has more stringent rules than its neighbors if the feds decide on a national standard.
As a matter of public policy, safety on Colorado’s railways is vital. Derailments and other accidents cost lives, trust and money. But the crew-size mandate just doesn’t make sense. Embracing protectionism won’t make the state’s railroads any safer. Instead, it will come at the cost of more potholes, worse traffic and extra pollution. This is the trade-off that the state Legislature thought was worthwhile. Gov. Polis would do well to find another track.
Eli Lehrer is president of the R Street Institute in Washington. Nick Zaiac is a Commercial Freedom Fellow at R Street whose portfolio includes postal, freight and surface transportation policy.